Following is a general overview of a particular event in early motion picture history – the day when a group of approximately 150 women were the first to see Edison’s latest invention, the Kinetoscope – May 20, 1891.
The idea of moving images was not new by the latter part of the 19th Century and there were several parties attempting to realize what would become the primary form of entertainment based on the idea of Thomas Edison’s phonograph.
With other inventors breathing down his neck and approaching him to collaborate, Edison added a stipulation to his with the Patents Office on October 17, 1888 with regards to the invention his Edison Laboratory was working on. In the stipulation he described this invention as a device that would “do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.” Edison called the device a “Kinetoscope,” using the Greek words “kineto” meaning “movement” and “scopos” meaning “to watch.” (loc.gov)
In June 1889 Edison gave the task of actually inventing the device to his assistant, William Kennedy Laurie (W. K. L.) Dickson who had a background as a photographer. Assisting Dickson was Charles A. Brown, another staff member in the Edison Laboratory. The particulars of this experimental project and the testing that resulted were conducted using the same method as several others Edison Laboratory was working on at the time. That is, the staff conducted the testing while Edison supervised, made all the decisions and took sole credit for all accomplishments. Although many scholars and historians credit William Dickson with inventing the Kinetograph as he did the actual work, Edison’s name is attached to it forever and, if I remember my copyright laws class, the fact he owned the facilities and employed Dickson and the others justify that the results should his. Not that he needs me to confirm – but just saying.
In any case, a prototype for the Kinetoscope was first demonstrated at a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, an event hosted by Edison’s wife, Mina on May 20 1891. It’s worth noting that the National Federation of Women’s Clubs or General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) as it is commonly known has roots going back to 1868 when journalist Jane Cunningham Croly attempted to attend a dinner at an all-male press club honoring Charles Dickens and was denied admittance based on her gender. In response to that happening, Croly formed a club for women and extended invitations to women’s clubs across the country. (GFWC.org)
I love the idea that it was a group of women who first saw Edison’s motion picture machine, but we should all be proud of the group’s much more important accomplishments, which includes focusing their efforts on the important issue of child labor as early as the 1890s.
So, back to the Kinetoscope demonstration – an article in the New York Sun described what the club of women saw in the “small pine box” they encountered that May day:
In the top of the box was a hole perhaps an inch in diameter. As they looked through the hole they saw the picture of a man. It was a most marvelous picture. It bowed and smiled and waved its hands and took off its hat with the most perfect naturalness and grace. Every motion was perfect….
Here’s a short (and terrific) clip, allows a look inside an early version of the Kinetoscope:
…and another short film demonstration:
Thomas Edison filed the patent for both the Kinetograph (the camera) and the Kinetoscope (the viewer) on August 24, 1891 with the device actually completed by 1892. During the next couple of years Edison Laboratory continued to work on taking the prototype motion picture machine into the future, making it a more durable, user-friendly (if you will) contraption all the while attempting to capture and record motion with the staff as the featured “actors.”
Motion Pictures went commercial (officially) in April 1894 when Edison opened the first Kinetoscope Parlor in New York City. I couldn’t find an image of that NYC parlor, but it would have been similar to others which followed across the country – like this one in San Francisco:
Preparations for publicity prior to the commercial introduction of the Kinetoscope included the W. K. L. Dickson recording “Record of a Sneeze” on January 7, 1894, which is the earliest surviving copyrighted motion picture. The protagonist in the piece – the sneezer – is Fred Ott, an Edison employee.
God bless you!
By March of 1894, Edison’s efforts turned toward commercial production in earnest when he transferred all motion picture activities from Edison Laboratory to the Edison Manufacturing Company. The Manufacturing Company was organized as Edison’s personal business in 1889 for the purpose of manufacturing batteries for Edison’s telegraph and phonograph systems, among others. From 1894 on the production of Kinetoscope film was added to the line.
I will end with what I think is an astonishing fact and accomplishment – perhaps related to today’s anniversary as noted above only in my mind. While I make special mention of the fact that those who first laid eyes on Edison’s Kinetoscope was a group of women, an event that probably just presented itself as an opportunity for exposure, it is the following that should be known and celebrated by all.
Without discounting anyone’s accomplishments in a laboratory or behind a camera, consider that amazing sneeze captured in motion by W. K. L. Dickson in early 1894. Then consider the accomplishment of film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché who made the first narrative film La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1896 – just two years after Fred Ott’s sneeze. Impressive.
On this and every early film milestone mentioned I think of Alice Guy-Blaché – director, writer and producer of over 1,000 films in a career that spanned twenty-four years – who also remains the only woman to ever manage and own her own movie studio, The Solax Company.
The “charming little woman” mentioned in that newspaper clipping still didn’t have the right to vote when she made history.
That.Is.All. For this, the 300th post on Once Upon a Screen.
Source: Library of Congress